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Campaigns interpret Trump's remarks on 'playing down' COVID-19

Bob Woodward conducted 18 interviews with Trump for

Bob Woodward conducted 18 interviews with Trump for his book "Rage."  Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s assertions that he intentionally "played down" the severity of the coronavirus during the early weeks of the pandemic dominated the focus of Sunday’s political talk show circuit, as aides for Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden offered opposing views of his remarks.

Trump campaign aides, responding to revelations from the president’s extensive interviews with veteran journalist Bob Woodward that were made public last week, disputed that the president sought to downplay the gravity of COVID-19, blaming instead a "fog of war" mentality.

"What he needed to do is be calm, hope for the best, but prepared for the worst," said White House Trade Adviser Peter Navarro on CNN’s "State of the Union."

The president in a Feb. 7 interview with Woodward described the virus as "deadly stuff" and "more deadly than even your strenuous flus," but in tweets and public statements days later Trump characterized the flu as more deadly than the COVID-19 virus. Trump granted Woodward 18 interviews earlier this year for the journalist's book "Rage," which is set to be released on Tuesday.

Biden’s campaign argued that Trump’s decision to "always play it down," as he told Woodward, according to tapes of their interviews that have since been released, cost time in the fight against a rapidly spreading virus that as of Sunday has killed more than 194,000 Americans.

"Donald Trump had information that could have made a difference not just seven months ago but could have made a difference for us right now," Biden campaign spokeswoman Symone Sanders told ABC’s "This Week."

GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, appearing on NBC’s "Meet the Press," said the president did not take "political calculations" when opting to give Americans a different assessment of the coronavirus’ risks in February than the more grave take he gave to Woodward in closed door interviews.

"Think of what would have happened if he'd have gone out and said, ‘This is awful. We should all be afraid. We don't have a plan,’ " McDaniel said. "It would have been a run on the banks. It would have been a run on the hospitals. It would have been a run on the grocery stores. As it was, it was already hard to get some of the things we needed in the grocery stores."

Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller pushed back on recent polls showing that a majority of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the pandemic. Miller argued that recent outdoor campaign rallies held by Trump indicate there is still enthusiasm behind the president.

"Americans very much trust President Trump to help us recover with the economy, and Americans also believe that President Trump is the one who is best positioned to lead us to a vaccine," Miller said, despite an ABC News/Ipsos poll released Sunday showing that 65% of voters polled said they disapproved of Trump’s handling of the nation’s public health crisis, and 68% of those same respondents said they did not trust the president when it came to his statements on COVID-19.

The same poll, which was conducted between Sept. 11 and 12, found that the 533 adults surveyed nationwide were split on Biden’s rhetoric on the virus. A little more than half of respondents — 51% — said they trusted Biden "a great deal" or a "good amount" when it came to the virus. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 percentage points.

Sanders, asked about Biden holding campaign events during the early days of the pandemic, argued that "in January and February, Joe Biden was not being briefed by national security experts who warned him how deadly the virus was. In January and February, Joe Biden did not have the knowledge that President Trump did."

"If Joe Biden were president in January or February, he would have taken proper precautions," Sanders said. "He would have warned the American people."

"Because he wasn’t the president, and he didn’t get the information from government experts telling him this was deadly and airborne the way President Trump did," Sullivan replied.

Jake Sullivan, senior policy adviser for the Biden campaign, appearing on "Fox News Sunday" also defended the Biden campaign holding campaign events as late as March.

"He wasn’t being told by his national security adviser the way Donald Trump was that this was going to be the worst crisis of his presidency," Sullivan said. "He didn’t have access to the kind of information that Donald Trump had and Donald Trump got all that information, learned this virus was deadly, learned it was airborne, learned it was worse than the flu and then lied to the American people and did nothing about it."

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